Reporting on the 39th Annual JALT International Conference

Steve Urick

Returning to the JALT (Japan Association of Language Teachers) Conference after not having attended for a few years, I found myself regretting my recent lack of participation. In addition to being exposed to the new information and ideas, I found myself stimulated to examine teaching and curriculum issues at Shizuoka University. This time I did not present, but went with the goal of garnering information which would be useful to the development of Academic English courses at Shizuoka University. I attended a number of sessions that focused on relevant topics, seven of which I report on below. The JALT Conference always provides an enormous amount of information that is of practical use to the language teacher, and I was not surprised to find ideas capable of contributing to the improvement of course design. I was also happily surprised to find that there were a number of sessions that focused on issues relating to curriculum development.

With regard to course design, Keith Ford (Waseda University) and Tim Knight (Shirayuki College) provided some interesting insights to teaching academic writing in their poster session. Their intensive approach focuses on the key elements of academic writing, rather than fluency. Issues such as thesis statement development, organization, and language issues such as hedging are dealt with in depth through classroom work and assignments. Students are not given a number of essay or other writing assignments through out the semester, but rather a final assignment that is the culmination of work throughout the semester—a research paper of 1000 words or more. It is perhaps common for teachers to feel that writing classes must contain many writing assignments for students, but Ford and Knight make a convincing argument that, at least for academic writing, an intensive approach which deals with various key elements may be more effective in fostering students’ ability to handle tasks such as writing research papers.

Concerning what type of reading activities will help students perform well on tests such as TEOFL, Guy Cihi (KK Lexxica R&D) shared a unique perspective. He pointed out that vocabulary items on such tests often make use of low frequency meanings of words to create more difficult test items. Extensive reading will not help students deal with such items, and academic reading is key in helping students gain the ability to understand meanings that rely heavily on context. However, he argued that lower level reading activities which focus on reading speed can also help students’ performance, as over 90 percent of the vocabulary for such tests consists of more basic words. If students make gains in reading fluency with simpler tasks, the increased speed at which they can read will give them more time to use in dealing with difficult vocabulary. In particular, this presentation recommended repeated timed spoken readings as a tool to help students acquire not only reading speed, but correct representations of the pronunciation of English words. In this way, not only increased reading speed, but also increased listening and speaking ability can be pursued. Taken as a whole this suggests that a mixed approach, which deals with high-level vocabulary, context, and reading speed may be the best approach. It seems to me that work with the well-known Academic Word List (developed by Averil Coxhead of Victoria University of Wellington) is an element which also can be included in courses which aim to help students improve their performance on tests such as TOEFL.

Yasunari Matsuzono (AGOS Japan) presented an analysis of TOEFL writing questions. He found that the independent task on the newer iBT test focuses on a narrower range of topics than its counterpart in the CBT or PBT versions. Specifically, he identified two main question types, Paired Type Questions and One Viewpoint Questions. The first category includes questions asking for agreement or disagreement, and questions which include two possible choices. The second main type includes questions which ask the test-taker to provide one viewpoint in their writing. The information presented was quite basic, but nevertheless useful, if one accepts the tenet that an understanding of question types is important for test-takers. It goes without saying that an accurate analysis of these types is a necessary antecedent to teaching them.

Michael J. Crawford’s (Dokkyo University) presentation focused on note-taking in EFL listening, and introduced me to research that I had not encountered before. The presentation was a review of research in the area, and introduced several studies that examined the effects of teaching note-taking skills on performance in listening activities. I am ashamed to admit that I had not been familiar with the Cornell note-taking method, which was introduced as the most popular method taught for note-taking. Although (as the presenter pointed out) the amount of literature on this issue is still scarce, there are indications that actively teaching note-taking can help students perform better on listening tasks. Crawford’s analysis of pedagogical implications suggests that instruction in such areas as abbreviations, symbols, underlining, and the use of content words over function words is necessary and helpful for many students.

Jill Murray (Macquarie University) presented research she and A. Mehdi Riazi (Macquarie University) did on composing strategies and TOEFL scores. An iterative model (in which test-takers use a menu of strategies in various, often recursive ways) was employed, and the strategies used by low scorers were compared with those used by high scorers. The study found that low scorers could not formulate substantial goals, while high scorers had a wide range of goals. High scorers also tended to make more non-content (grammatical or lexical) changes, and demonstrated more use of rereading as a strategy. As there appears to be a link between strategy use and performance, it would seem wise to include instruction on writing strategies in a TOEFL course.

The ideas I encountered about curriculum design did not by any means constitute a comprehensive approach or set of principles that can be applied to Academic English at Shizouka Univeristy. Yet, through exposure to a number of issues related to curriculum design, I found hints at ways in which our institution may be able to move forward. For example, Visiting John Peloghitis’ (Tokai University) poster session, and speaking with him and other attendees, I was impressed with the importance of the effective use of technology in TOEFL classes. His research found that typing speed was a prime concern of students in the TOEFL class he taught. This suggests that the use of computers for writing practice and possibly even stand-alone typing practice may be called for in teaching TOEFL. Another conference attendee who was at this session (whose name and affiliation I have unfortunately lost track of) described how he used digital recorders, computers, and Moodle for TOEFL speaking practice. His system involves students recording speaking practice, posting it online, receiving peer feedback, and finally, teacher comments. While there is a limit to the amount of technology available at a National University Foundation, I believe it is necessary for us to explore different ways of using technology to give students the greatest possibility in attaining their goals for using English in academic contexts.

Nishikawa and Lee (Kyoto University) described the Academic English program at their institution, and made some tentative suggestions about the effectiveness of certain types of comments as writing feedback. One key component of the English program at Kyoto University is the English for General Academic Purposes (EGAP) courses. These classes exist because there has been an acknowledgement of the need to provide students with scaffolding in order to help them prepare to undertake more field-specific academic tasks in English. While the needs of students at Kyoto University and Shizuoka University are quite different, it is nevertheless important for us to consider whether some sort EGAP courses are called for at our institution.
To state my own viewpoint, I think they are indeed called for. It seems to me that we need a small-scale, two-tiered program for Academic English within the General Education English Program at Shizuoka University. This would include both EGAP courses and academic content-based courses. A TOEIC score of 500 or even 600 or 700 will not guarantee that a student possesses the academic skills necessary for success in an English language content-based course. There is also a set of definable skills that students can and should master before tackling content-based courses. These include, but are no means limited to the ones mentioned above: knowledge of academic vocabulary, note-taking skills, reading fluency, and academic writing skills (including the acquisition of organizational concepts and the ability to use writing strategies, among other things).

The distribution of courses I would like to propose would include an EGAP course made available for students from their first year. I believe that the current requirement for registration for upper-level elective courses (a score of 500 or more on the TOEIC test) would be appropriate for such a course. As currently planned, content-based courses can be offered for students from their second year on, but stricter requirements should be put in place for these courses. A TOEIC score of at least 600 should be a requirement, and for most students, enrollment in EGAP courses prior to enrolling in content-based classes should be strongly recommended. The current plan calls for content-based courses to be offered only in the second semester, but providing such courses in both semesters should be considered. Finally, the issue of technology is more complex and cannot be addressed in detail in this article, but the prudent use of technology in Academic English courses is something we should continue to explore and develop.